Eddie and his fellow prisoners on Robben Island found great strength in each other. They also had an uncanny nack for making a “boon” of very difficult situations. They made the best of their time by using it wisely. This helped them to thrive when many others would likely wither away and die.
After nearly two years without seeing the outside world, the political prisoners were allowed to go to the quarry and work. Freed from the cramped spaces of their cell and prison yard, they finally got outdoors. Initially, they were allowed to walk to the quarry. Eddie loved the walks because he could see Cape Town and Table Mountain. He could listen to the squawk of seagulls. He smelled the salty breeze blowing in from the ocean. The gentle humidity from the cool bay blew across his face.
It didn’t take long for the guards to become concerned that the political prisoners may incite a riot if the other prisoners were allowed to see them. Remember, revolutionary leaders such as Mandela and the leaders of other political and quasi-military groups were among their number. When the guards became concerned, Eddie and company were no longer allowed to walk to the quarry. They were forced to ride in a covered “laurie,” or truck, so that they couldn’t be seen.
This was another hardship, but soon the men realized this truck also carried other groups of prisoners around the island. They began writing notes on small scraps of paper and hiding them in the infrastructure of the covered laurie. Because the guards prevented anyone from seeing them, the men were also hidden from the guards. Soon, other groups of prisoners discovered the notes and began sending secret messages back.
With this hidden communication, when conditions were bad, they were able to organize hunger and work strikes throughout the entire island. The guards were perplexed by such well organized activities and sensed they were being orchestrated by the political prisoners. Eddie beamed with a sly smile while recounting these events. He and his comrades found a way to turn an attempt to conceal them from the other prisoners into a way to communicate with their friends and even people on the mainland.
The quarry where they worked was no place for the faint of heart. Here, Eddie and his friends were exposed to direct sun for hours and inhaled toxic lime dust. Many developed lung diseases. Some can no longer shed tears because the lime set-up like concrete in their tear ducts. In this cruel environment, they made strides towards bettering themselves and each other.
Eddie described how being in the quarry allowed the prisoners to communicate more easily. He said that if he was working on one section of rock, and someone he wanted to talk to was working on the other end of the quarry, he could chip a little here and a little there, until he chipped all the way over to the person he wanted to talk to.
In the quarry, with freedom to move and converse, the men established a system of educating themselves. Many of those who were imprisoned were doctors, lawyers and academics. They had a motto. “Each one teach one,” Eddie said.
There were many men who had degrees and held teaching positions in universities before they were arrested. Eddie was paired with some of these instructors to take classes while working in the quarry. He earned two college degrees while in prison.
While receiving his own education, he was partnered with men who couldn’t read and taught them how. In this way, the group learned and grew together. The bonds they formed forged a comraderie few of us may ever know. The bonds were so strong, relationships so tight, that they never lost touch with each other.
Eddie said he didn’t regret a day he spent on Robben Island. When offered a chance to be discharged by signing an agreement to not attack the government, he refused. He said he refused on principle. I wonder if he refused, at least in part, because to leave meant leaving his friends.
Who would you be willing to be imprisoned for? Why would you go through that for them? Do they know you feel that strongly about your relationship?